Micah Lexier, MFA’84, on “What I’ve learned so far”

Commencement Address by Micah Lexier, MFA ’84, to the  NSCAD Graduating Class, May 15, 2009

I am standing on a stage reading from a piece of paper that I am holding in my hand, addressing a whole bunch of people, most of whom I do not know. Or maybe I am standing on a stage but not holding a piece of paper, as I have placed it on the lectern. Or maybe there is no lectern or maybe it’s not even a stage, but I am pretty sure that it’s more than one piece of paper that I am holding or not holding.

In reality, I am not standing on a stage holding a piece of paper in my hand; I am sitting at my desk, in my pajamas, typing on the computer. Okay, I am not really wearing pajamas; I just said that because I thought it would make a better image.

am sitting at my computer, but it’s about ten in the morning a few weeks earlier than I am reading this, and I have just come back from swimming at the community center where I got the idea for opening the speech this way.

That is one of the reasons why I like swimming, as I get so many ideas while in the pool. I got the idea at the beginning of the swim, and I swim for about an hour so I had to keep these words in my head during the entire rest of the swim and in the shower after and in the change room, and then I rushed home and sat down and started typing this.

This idea came after I had written about four other possible introductions to this speech and although I liked the other versions a lot, I think I am going to go with this opening as I get to acknowledge that I am reading off of a piece of paper and I like things that are self-referential both in life and in art.

I feel a great responsibility today to say something that will inspire you; that will make you feel good about yourselves and about your future. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a pretty earnest, corny person. For a conceptual artist I am pretty touchy-feely. As I get older I have learned to trust myself and to embrace those things that used to embarrass me.  So in that spirit I am here today to share a few things that I have learned… things that I am happy to pass on. But please don’t feel you have to take any of them to heart. It is the best thing that I can think of to do today. It is what I have to offer.

Here are some things I have learned so far:

Number 1: We are each responsible for our own happiness. I am not going to address how to become a successful artist or craftsperson or designer, as you are not in control of that. But you are in control of being a successful person. And I leave that up to you to define. But it is a lot easier to be happy if you don’t blame others. You are responsible for your own happiness.

Number 2: Take it off the tray. If you’re in a cafeteria and they give you your food on a plastic tray, don’t just start eating when you sit down. Take the plate and cup, whatever, off the tray and put it on the table. The food will taste better.

Number 3: Friendship. I want to tell you that I have learned that friendship is the most important thing in the world. I want to tell you that being happy and making other people happy is a very important value.

Number 4: Don’t be afraid of things that smell good. When I was in university I went to a party at someone’s house. At some point I went to the bathroom and washed my hands, and this person had the most amazing, scented soap. I had never experienced anything like that before. At that moment I realized that something could have a function and be pleasurable at the same time. Don’t be afraid of pleasure.

Number 5: We all know the answers. We all know the answers. It is a question of having the strength to act on that knowledge. Trust yourself.

Number 6: If you don’t want to get a speeding ticket, don’t speed. For a long time I lived in fear of getting speeding tickets because if you got too many they would jack up your insurance rates really high. But then my brother suggested that if I didn’t want to get any more speeding tickets that I shouldn’t speed.

Just to clarify, that one was not really about speeding tickets…it was a kind of metaphor – more of an example of point Number 5: We all know the answers.

Number 7: Be in the thing you are in. Another way of saying this is to quote from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” I take this to mean that whatever you do, you need to be really present in it or it doesn’t really count. Enough said.

Number 8: Everyone needs to be in love. It doesn’t have to be with a person but it has to be with something. Find out what it is that you love and do it. This is a slight paraphrase of a concept by the writer Charles Bukoski.

Number 9: Don’t live with a TV. When I left my parent’s house 27 years ago to move to Halifax to go to grad school, that was the last time I lived with a TV. It is very easy to keep up with news and popular culture and TVs are everywhere anyway. But by not living with one I feel like I have given myself a few years of extra time that otherwise would have been spent watching TV.

Number 10: Touch paper once. An old boyfriend once took a course in how to be more productive in the workplace and when he came home that evening he introduced me to the phrase. For some reason it resonated with me and I have always remembered it. I take it to mean that one should deal with practical things as they present themselves: respond right away to an e-mail, pay a bill when it comes in (if you can)- you have to deal with these things eventually, so you might as well deal with it as soon as it lands on your desk. I have taken this one to heart and it makes my life a lot easier.

Number 11: Don’t meet your heroes. You can only be disappointed. Your image of them always exceeds their reality. Plus the purpose of a hero is to inspire you. Keep it that way.

Number 12: Buy flowers in odd numbers. My mom passed on to me her love of having fresh flowers in the house and I always remember that she told me to buy flowers in odd numbers as an odd number of flowers makes a better display.

Number 13: Have a motto. I find it’s helpful to employ the use of mottos. You don’t even have to make your own up; you can borrow someone else’s. When I was watching No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Bob Dylan, there is part where Dylan relates a story in which one of the Clancy Brothers shared his motto with him. And it’s a good one: No Fear. No Envy. No Meanness.  Feel free to borrow that one for a while.

Number 14: Eliminate the penny. Some of you may not end up being artists or designers but will go on to do other things. If one of you goes into politics, please feel free to champion my suggestion to eliminate the penny like they have done in Australia. Products are still priced to the penny, but when it comes time to pay you just round up or down to the nearest nickel. It works.

Number 15: Do what you want to do and don’t do what you don’t want to do. Don’t wait for anyone else to discover you or to encourage you. Make things happen for yourself, and for others. I think Paul Simon, he of Simon and Garfunkel and dozens of amazing songs, got it right when he said: “I understand that what I’m doing might not be interesting to a lot of people. I think the key is that you don’t give up – you just keep going.”

Number 16: Follow up. If, in a professional context, or any context really, someone requests something from you as they have interest in what you are doing, do it. Send it to them, right away. You would be surprised how much can come from following things up.

Number 17: Problems are good. The best thing that can happen to you as a creative person is to have some kind of technical problem or limitation while you are working on something, so that you have to come up with a new solution. Some of my very best ideas have been in response to technical problems or limitations.

Number 18: Have lunch with a friend as often as possible. Sorry to be redundant about the friendship thing, but I love eating and I love my friends. So sharing a meal with a friend is my definition of pure happiness.

Number 19: Try and keep it short. Keep things as short as possible. For instance, if you are giving the commencement speech, say to a graduating class, everyone will be a lot happier if you keep it short. If people liked what you had to say, they will be happy, and if people hated what you had to say, they will be happy too, because it was over fairly quickly.

And on that note I want to thank David Smith and the Board of Directors for inviting me to speak to you today. It is exactly 25 year since I graduated from NSCAD, and it is a real honour and privilege to return on this anniversary.

I want to thank Jan Peacock for introducing me and for being a great cook and a wonderful friend. Thank you NSCAD for bringing the two of us together. NSACD works in wondrous ways. I want to acknowledge the accomplishments of the two honorary doctorates. I want to congratulate all the family and friends of the graduates.

But mostly I want to welcome all the graduates into a very special club of which I have been a member of longer than most of you have been alive: that of the NSCAD alumni. It is an amazing group of people to be a part of and an accomplishment of which you should be very proud. Congratulations. (Graduates, please come see me after the ceremony is over and I will teach you the special NSCAD Alumni handshake.)

Thank you for your patience this afternoon. The party is just about to begin – and I mean that in the broadest possible way. Best of luck and I hope your lives are filled with happiness and satisfaction and lots of meals with friends.

Micah Lexier (MFA ’84) and Professor Jan Peacock